Read Between the Lines When Talkin' Baseball

It's March. Everybody wins the pennant. Every pitcher is Cy Young. Every batter is Ty Cobb. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don't care if I never get back.

Opening day is just around the corner. April is waiting for the fools. Baseball is a game of optical illusions anyway. The ball doesn't really curve. Stealing is legal and the spitball isn't as outlawed as the commissioner thinks it is.

You can't play any sport without being an optimist. But baseball is the only one that comes with the spring of the year when the ground thaws, the Yukon breaks up, the trees bud, the birds return and hope is reborn.

As noted, spring and baseball are perfect for each other. Forty-five-year-old pitchers who haven't thrown anything that curved for seven years suddenly think that age is an illusion, like the curveball. Ted Wiliams says that the hardest thing to do in the world of sport is to hit the curveball but 100 rookies dream of solving the secret.

But spring goeth before the fall. Managers appear to be the worst of the lot. But that's only an illusion, too. Managers have been around too long not to know that a Willie Mays only comes along once in a generation, that everybody else is a journeyman trying to put together that one magical year that will enable him to coast to his pension.

Pay no attention to what the manager says in public. He's just trying to sell tickets. What he says and what he thinks are as different as--well, spring and fall.

Below, what the manager says. In parentheses, what he thinks:

"We can play with anybody in the game." ("We can play with them, we just can't beat them.")

"We're as good as any team in the league." ("The Carolina League. Is there still a Three-I League?")

"This team doesn't know the meaning of the word choke " ("This team doesn't know the meaning of a lot of words. The only thing lower than their batting average is their IQ. The only word they know right off hand is renegotiation. They learn that right after Momma.")

"These guys remind me of great combinations of the past." ("Laurel and Hardy. Curly, Shemp and Moe. Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo and Gummo. The Keystone Kops. Chaplin on a banana peel was never any funnier than these guys.")

"The trade with the Mets gives us the best balanced outfield we've ever had." ("One guy can't catch the ball, one guy can't hit the ball and the other guy can't throw the ball. How's that for balance?")

"This is a team with a lot of desire." ("Just ask any waitress in town. Or just add up the paternity suits and sexual harassment charges. These guys make Porfirio Rubirosa look like a monk.")

"We're going to emphasize fundamentals." ("What else can you do with a bunch of .218 hitters, wait for three-run homers?")

"This team isn't afraid to get its uniforms dirty." ("It's their fingernails they worry about.")

"I got a guy here who's a regular Ruth." ("Or Dora or Emily or Sarah. What I mean to say is, he runs and throws like a girl.")

"We're going to surprise a lot of people." ("Particularly the owner, who shelled out $30 million for this pile of crud--overpaid underachievers.")

"These guys don't sell themselves short." ("Particularly the left fielder. He was born on a dirt floor in a cane field where the nearest running water was the Mississippi River, his first pair of shoes had cleats in them and he now says he can't live on $2.3 million a year.")

"He's going to be my stopper!" ("He couldn't stop a nosebleed in a rabbit. The last time he got the side out, Eisenhower was President. The only thing he'll stop is a winning streak--in the unlikely event we ever have one.")

"My bullpen has the best firemen in the game." ("They should call it 'Gasoline Alley.' These guys should be arrested for arson. You've heard of pouring oil on troubled waters? These guys would pour oil on forest fires. Around the league they're known as 'The Towering Inferno.' ")

"All this club needs is another bat in the center of the lineup." ("All this club needs is another lineup--the 1927 Yankees, say.")

"This is a hungry club." ("If you don't think so, just check room service. My infield set two records last year, one for throwing errors, the other for steak sandwiches at 2 in the morning. This is also a thirsty club. It has its own bartender and a beer truck follows the infield around on the road. I won't say these guys lead the league in hangovers but you don't dare light a match in the clubhouse before day games.")

"These guys could get in the World Series. All they need is a few breaks." ("Yeah, Roger Clemens needs to break his arm, Jose Canseco needs to break a leg and the Kansas City Royals have to hit a mountain.")

"This team just has to learn to relax." ("Relax? I can hardly keep them awake through the seventh inning. If this team relaxed any more, you could take their pulse with a calendar. It's not a team, it's a coma.")

"These are the finest bunch of young men I have ever managed." ("Fine young men don't win pennants; nasty, blue-bearded, red-neck, tobacco-chewing, snarling loudmouths do. Home runs win pennants, not homebodies. Give me someone who wants to win ballgames, not friends. Don't give me someone who's good to his mother, give me someone who'd throw at her with men on base. I want to win a pennant, not a popularity contest.")

"I'm confident this team will play up to its potential." ("I'm not confident they will, I'm afraid they will. This team will play up to its potential, all right--sixth place.")

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